The worst in sports brings out best in us

Just when the year-end lists were beginning to drop like anvils earlier this week about what a bruising year 2011 was for sports and the cynic in me was sighing, "What's new?" a counterpoint came along that made me wonder whether we're not characterizing the year too simplistically.

It was a grace note of a story that first appeared in The Wall Street Journal. It was about R.A. Dickey, the journeyman knuckleball pitcher who has enjoyed a late-career boomlet of success with the New York Mets, and how he had told team management that yes, he had gotten its letter warning him that if he climbed Mount Kilimanjaro for charity as he intends, the team could void the $4.5 million in guaranteed money remaining on his two-year, $7.8 million contract if he became injured or incapacitated.

Dickey wants to make the climb to raise money for the Bombay Teen Challenge, a group that helps victims of human trafficking and sex slavery. Right about here, you might reasonably ask yourself why any big league team would be against that -- particularly the so-called New York Madoffs. Mets principal owners Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz are being sued by the likes of widows and pension funds to recoup money lost in the Ponzi scheme run by the owners' pal, Bernie Madoff. Dickey, now 37, spent the first 14 years of his career without a guaranteed contract, yet his response to the Mets was perfect: He said he intends to climb Kilimanjaro anyway. He essentially told the Mets you can keep your money, if it comes to that. And I'll keep my principles, thank you.

There were plenty of other honorable stands made in sports in 2011. But perhaps the reason the year felt so discouraging was they often came in response to some problem or crime rather than pre-emptively.

Still, don't miss the overarching pattern here or the way the big picture is trending: 2011 may yet be remembered as the year that sports finally began realizing its "Whatever it takes" credo is too unconscionable to justify.

"Whatever it takes" was on the run in 2011. And the parameters on "Anything goes" in sports are being redrawn, reconsidered and redressed, too.

Just look around.

Concussions and protecting players' physical well-being are the front-burner issues in the NHL and NFL right now. No matter how the Penn State/Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse accusations are resolved, that mess already has sparked a long overdue return to the debate about autocratic coaches and what can happen when The Program is put ahead of all else. It may yet also turn out to be a case study on what can go wrong when people in power treat an institution or an entire college town like their own private duchy and let their fears about bad publicity and their determination to stay in charge trump even the laws of a civilized society.

Sports seemed to be fighting quite frequently in 2011 to become a more civilized place rather than to keep looking the other way.

European soccer is finally dealing more forcefully with racism by dishing out big suspensions, not just more lip service. NFL stars Michael Vick and Plaxico Burress say prison time accomplished what it was supposed to do: rehab them as people. Let's see if it lasts.

Denver quarterback Tim Tebow has been a lightning rod (and ratings gold) because people say they do/don't want to hear about his morality, and an NBA bit player, Kris Humphries of the New Jersey Nets, vaulted by LeBron James and David Stern as the most hated person in the NBA, according to a recent Forbes poll, because his brief marriage with Kim Kardashian that netted them millions of dollars was suspected to be a sham.

But while all of that was going on, a very serious and groundbreaking fight for marriage equality for same-sex partners picked up the support of sports tough guys such as Baltimore linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, Hall of Fame lock defensive end Michael Strahan and the NHL's Sean Avery. And Grant Hill was among the NBA players who lent his voice to anti-bullying campaigns aimed at helping at-risk children, especially lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender kids who are contemplating suicide.

The death of three hockey fighters in the offseason raised questions: What is the physical and emotional toll an enforcer's job takes, and the danger of repeated blows to the head? And if it's pretty much agreed now that creating a gladiatorial class of athletes who scramble their brains for our entertainment is an unsupportable result of sports' "Whatever it takes" credo, shouldn't the NHL ban all hits to the head and end the game's unique nightly phenomenon -- bare-knuckle fist fighting -- too? And shouldn't the NFL's campaign to stop hits on defenseless players quit being such a hot debate?

The Pittsburgh Steelers' head-hunting linebacker James Harrison works in the same town as Sidney Crosby, the still-ailing Penguins superstar whose career has been interrupted by post-concussion problems stretching back a year.

Harrison needs to pipe down and get a clue.

The new "whatever it takes" can be these kind of stories instead: It's the sight of Tennessee's iconic women's basketball coach Pat Summit deciding to live and work openly with early-onset Alzheimer's for as long as she can rather than slip off into the shadows in shame -- and finding out she has the steadfast support of a generous group of friends and administrators who have dug in around her to help make it work, not worry that it could cost them another NCAA title.

It's paralyzed Rutgers football player Eric LeGrand's determination to refocus his attention on what makes a person: who we were, or who we may yet become?

It's the story of double-amputee sprinter Oscar Pistorius ignoring organized efforts to stop him from running against able-bodied runners because of critics' claims that his carbon-fiber prosthetics might -- are you ready for this? -- somehow give him an unfair advantage. Pistorius recommitted to training until he met the qualifying time for the 2012 Olympic Summer Games, and ran in the 2011 world championship.

Sports were not a kinder, gentler place in 2011. But the "whatever it takes" ethos was indeed challenged, all right, if not soon enough at places such as Penn State.

Football players' jokes about getting "dinged" in the head aren't funny anymore. Race car drivers don't forgo the latest safety options as Dale Earnhardt fatally did out of habit or macho pride. Trainers who drug racehorses get suspended -- if still not quickly enough or harshly enough.

So good riddance, 2011. And way to go.

Sometimes the cataclysmic problems it takes to create meaningful change in sports can seem as daunting as climbing Kilimanjaro. But then people like Dickey or the extraordinary folks at Tennessee come along and tell sports it can keep its money and power and fame.

They'll keep their principles, thanks.